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Everything seems to be feeling the Web's influence, and this year's crop of tax-preparation software is no exception. Intuit's MacInTax Deluxe '98 and Block Financial's Kiplinger TaxCut 1998 not only sport new Web-influenced features, such as hyperlinks and FAQs, but also link to Web databases of tax information and let you file your return electronically. MacInTax's new navigation features, a streamlined interface, and improved tax guidance make it the clear winner, and TaxCut is a close second.
This year, you can even bypass CD-ROMs altogether and do your taxes on a Web site. Universal Tax Systems' SecureTax.com is software that you access through your browser to prepare your tax return. Unfortunately, SecureTax.com neglects to take advantage of the Web's potential, and it's also hampered by the limitations of the Web. Worse, it doesn't offer the wealth of tax help that makes MacInTax and TaxCut so invaluable.
No matter which program you choose, you either enter tax information directly into federal or state forms or simply let the software interview you and fill out the forms based on your answers. MacInTax and TaxCut are much better interviewers than SecureTax.com, which doesn't even ask if you're self-employed; you have to go to the on-screen Schedule C form and fill in the information. And MacInTax and TaxCut start the interview by asking if you want to import information from last year's return. (You can also import information from Intuit's Quicken and other business programs.) SecureTax.com does not offer that option.
Whereas the interviews in MacInTax and TaxCut actually help you make decisions, SecureTax.com's interview simply collects data. For instance, MacInTax and TaxCut each use your answers to determine whether you can claim a particular person as a dependent and get this year's new child tax credit; SecureTax.com simply asks you to list your dependents.
Help with the tax code is what makes tax software more than just a calculator. Both MacInTax and TaxCut repeat the same information in various ways, just in case it didn't sink in the first time. Both also offer tips, IRS instructions, FAQs, and QuickTime movies.
MacInTax distinguishes itself by putting specific tax help exactly where you need it. For instance, the program puts relevant FAQs on almost every pageclick on a question, and the answer appears. MacInTax also integrates its videos into the interview, whereas TaxCut lists them in the help window. And MacInTax hyperlinks every tax term on every page to a definition; TaxCut has some hyperlinks, but not nearly as many. Ironically, SecureTax.com has no hyperlinked termsyou have to click on a help link and search for a term.
In last year's versions of both MacInTax and TaxCut, you had to click on a topic and then click through the screens until you found the page you wanted. You can now get to any MacInTax interview page with a single click. (TaxCut still takes you to the beginning of a section, and you have to click until you find the page you want.) And both MacInTax and TaxCut have improved the way they display the navigation window: in TaxCut you click on a button to bring up the navigation window when you need it, and MacInTax now positions its overview window at the left and shows only half of it, to conserve screen space; when you pass your cursor over the window, it's displayed in its entirety.
You'll find no such niceties in SecureTax.com. Besides making navigation a chore, it's slow, it won't work if you've disabled cookies in your Web browser, and it's prone to displaying erroneous error messages.
Once again, MacInTax Deluxe is the clear choice for tax-preparation software, offering more interface, help, and navigation improvements than Kiplinger TaxCut. MacInTax will also appeal to users who don't live in one of the ten states for which TaxCut has forms.
SecureTax.com, although it's less expensive (you pay only when you print your return or file it electronically), just isn't in the same league as MacInTax and TaxCut. There are no advantages to having your private tax information stored on someone else's Web serverand, in this case, plenty of drawbacks.
RATING: PROS: Straightforward interview process; good, plentiful tax advice. CONS: State-return forms for only ten states; navigation not as easy as in MacInTax. COMPANY: Block Financial (617/491-1800, http://www.taxcut.com ). LIST PRICE: $39.95 (electronic filing free).
RATING: PROS: Excellent navigational aids; extensive hyperlinks; easy to use. CONS: None significant. COMPANY: Intuit Software (520/901-3110, http://www.macintax.com ). LIST PRICE: $49.95 (electronic filing free).
RATING: PROS: Inexpensive. CONS: Slow; incomplete interview process; weak help function; tax data isn't stored locally. COMPANY: Universal Tax Systems (706/232-7757, http://www.securetax.com ). LIST PRICE: Free for entering data; $14.95 for printing or filing electronically.
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